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Okja [2017]

Okja [2017]: The message behind Okja is clear: the meat packing industry and the corporate arm behind it are cruel, vicious, and unfeeling. It looks at animals as nothing more than profit and a method of making money to fatten their already fat pockets. In typical Bong Joon-ho fashion,-is hardly subtle in developing this main theme. Those who hear the premise of the film - in which a young girl befriends a genetically-mutated "superpig" Okja that is destined to be slaughtered - can immediately decipher what the film will ultimately say. In this way, it is not hard to imagine many looking at this film as an unsavory and predictable affair that hardly beats around the bush with its issue, making it hardly worth watching. Yet, as always, there is more under the surface of this film that makes it more than worth one's time, even if the film takes no surprise turns.

The power of friendship. From the very outset of the film, Bong Joon-ho strikes an odd tone and feeling. With a deathly serious plot detailing the marketing gimmick of the Mirando Corporation - led by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) - to have 26 "natural" and "non-GMO" superpigs raised by 26 farmers before the best superpig is revealed in ten years, the film details the friendship formed by one superpig with a young girl. Superpig Okja is sent to South Korea where Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) falls in love with the pig and the two form an unbreakable bond. In these moments the film creates great pathos that leads to the audience's heart being ripped out when Okja is whisked away to be slaughtered in the name of profit by Lucy and her cohorts. This feeling of pathos is perhaps the film's greatest asset that allows it to overcome Bong Joon-ho's blunt touch. At the core of it all, this is a film about a young girl and her pet being pulled apart by forces out of their control. Anybody who loves animals and pets will be touched by this film for this impeccably human center and the love shown between the two of them. This feeling is not just conjured up in moments where the two bond in the Korean forests, but how the two sacrifice for one another. Mija pulls a rock out of Okja's foot to help her not be in pain. Okja throws herself off of a cliff to rescue Mija, who had slipped off. In these grand moments and in the small ones, their connection is undeniable.

Odd, yet effective, tone. Yet, the film is really struck by that aforementioned awkward tone. Though it is not detrimental - in fact, it is rather comical and quite good satire - it is noteworthy.  With Tilda Swinton's CEO being an exaggerated depiction of a greedy businesswoman, the film has her not just play this hyperbolic figure but gives her equally exaggerated dialogue. In our first introduction to her character, she reassures the press present at the Mirando Corporation announcement of the superpigs that, at the end of the day, these pigs need to "taste fucking good". It is a crude and vulgar way to discuss anything with the press and, yet it sets the tone perfectly. She is crass, unfeeling, and suffering from an inferiority complex when it comes to her sister. Her loose and casual demeanor is essentially meant to stand as a symbol of the world's indifference. At the end of the day, our basic animal instinct to kill and eat meat overwhelms normal human function to the point that we become savages, unafraid to make our meals suffer as long as it "tastes fucking good."

Hypocrisy and Dr. Johnny Wilcox. Alongside Swinton's exaggerated CEO figure is Jake Gyllenhaal's Dr. Johnny Wilcox. The face of the Mirando Corporation and their superpig operation, Wilcox is a fragile male figure and veterinarian. A professed animal lover, Wilcox nonetheless lets the superpigs suffer in horrific conditions as a means to satisfy his own ego. Even once he is exposed, he desperately tries to claw back his positive public persona as a wacky, loony, and animal-obsessed veterinarian. Yet, at the center of this kooky figure is not just an excellently nutty performance by Gyllenhaal, but a deeply hypocritical man.

Humanizing the superpigs to conjure up empathy and compassion for their trauma. In watching Okja, it is not hard to come to a comparison between this film and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both dealing with a similar thesis regarding the cruel nature of slaughterhouses and the way in which animals are treated in those situations, the two films take a very human approach to that idea. In the aforementioned classic horror film, Leatherface kills the protagonists one-by-one in brutal fashions. With the protagonists ignorantly just walking into Leatherface's house where they are met with chainsaws and meat hooks, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be a film that, on the surface, is just about dumb kids walking into a situation they should have seen as dangerous. Yet, it is intended to exactly mirror the walk made by animals into the slaughterhouse. It is a doomed one and they know what is coming, but it is their "fate" and cannot be avoided. While Okja does include actual slaughterhouse scenes, it tries to pull back the animalistic nature of, well, animals. It humanizes them and makes it irrevocably clear that animals feel pain, love, and any other "human" emotion. This is not just defined in the scenes where Okja pals around with Mija, but also in America. Sent into the slaughterhouse to reveal the horrors of the Mirando Corporation, it feels as though Okja is recording a sadistic animal prison. With paralyzed pigs, disfigured pigs, and an animal "mating" rape scene, it is a horrific sequence that feels like watching undercover footage of a military prison at Guantanamo. Later, when superpigs try to save their babies by finding any way out for them, the sacrifice and sadness of watching a mother send away their baby because she cannot keep it safe any longer are heartwrenching. Yet, through both the footage and that image of sacrifice, Okja winds up doing the opposite of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the end result being the same. Both creating great empathy for the situation of animals, Okja humanizes the animals as opposed to "animalizing" the humans to create that empathy. No matter the approach, it is powerful to watch and impeccably effective.

Cynicism. Bong Joon-ho takes some cues from Billy Wilder or Robert Altman in Okja's abject cynicism about the world outside of Mija and Okja. Utilizing farmers across the world to raise these superpigs, the film's depiction of cynicism extends even to Mija's own grandfather who willingly lets Okja be taken away as part of his financial agreement with the Mirando Corporation. Obviously, the Mirando Corporation and Wilcox are also quite cynical figures with the monolithic corporate evil and greed taking center stage along with the insatiable need to be loved demonstrated by Wilcox. While both figures are quite the caricatures, they nonetheless depict the cynical view Bong Joon-ho holds of both business and entertainers. Both are in it for the profit and, in a way, the latter is worse due to how they lie. Wilcox professes to be an animal lover but tortures animals all the same. At the very least, Lucy is greedy and admits that she is greedy. The film's commitment to cynicism even lasts to the final sequence of the film in which the only thing that could ever hope to stop this level of greed is pay-offs and the chance of an increase in profit via other means. There is no human compassion expressed by the antagonists of the film and the only time they run into good human decisions is as a result of seeking ways to make more money.

The removal of Okja from Mija as a parallel for the westernization of South Korea. While perhaps not a major theme, Okja nonetheless introduces some ideas regarding America and the rest of the world. With Okja the superpig being raised in South Korea and then sold out to an American company, the implication is clear: to some degree, Korea has sold itself out to be buddies with America. It is a practice done by average people, such as Mija's grandfather, and the government as a whole. With Americans coming in and promising profit as long as Korea plays along with everything they do to it and its culture, a key part of the country's essence is inextricably lost in the process. No longer is it a single entity, but a westernized version of a once great Asian nation. This same idea was expressed in Bong Joon-ho's 2006 monster film The Host. With the contamination of a river leading to fish monsters that wreak havoc on Korea, the pollution was created by westerners with Korea forced to face the horrors created for them by the West. Okja's depiction of Westerners coming in and stealing away the pet of a little girl to make money at the expense of Korean love and blood is the very essence of this stripping of Korean values, life, and culture, in the name of bowing down and kissing the American's ring.

 

 

A smart, compassionate, and entirely moving experience, Bong Joon-ho's Okja may be a bit blunt, but it is never preachy. Rather, it allows its message to communicated simply and in a human fashion with a young girl and her beloved pet seeking to be reunited against all odds. With a good cast - led by Ahn Seo-hyun, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano - Okja is a film that will not surprise anybody with what it has to say, but it does it so effectively that its power is hard to deny.

Related: The film Okja has made it onto Borrowing Tape's "Best Films of 2017" list.

Okja [2017]
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